The lamed­vu­vnik les­son: good­ness is great­ness

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Comment - Rabbi Chaim Stein­metz

Great men do great things. Thomas Car­lyle ar­gued for the “Great Man” the­ory of his­tory, that “the his­tory of the world is but the bi­og­ra­phy of great men.” Oth­ers de­bate this idea and see the great lead­ers of his­tory as merely a prod­uct of their so­ci­ety. (Note: the phrase “Great Man” is not meant as a ref­er­ence to char­ac­ter, but rather to a per­son’s im­pact). The last cen­tury of­fers am­ple proof for the “Great Man” the­ory. Milton Him­mel­farb wrote an es­say ti­tled “No Hitler, No Holo­caust,” in which he ex­plains that “Anti-semitism was a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for the Holo­caust, but it was not a suf­fi­cient con­di­tion. Hitler was needed.” This is in­dis­putable; the Holo­caust is in­con­ceiv­able with­out Hitler. Larg­erthan-life in­di­vid­u­als play a unique role in de­ter­min­ing the course of his­tory.

Great Man the­ory is a sta­ple of the Tanach’s nar­ra­tive. For much of the Tanach, cen­tral char­ac­ters such as Abra­ham, Moses, and David take the stage and di­rect the course of ac­tion. To this day, Jewish li­turgy men­tions these trans­for­ma­tive lead­ers more than any­one else.

How­ever, Great Man the­ory is more than an ex­pla­na­tion of his­tory. Great­ness is also our high­est as­pi­ra­tion. Mai­monides (Deuteron­omy 3:3) makes a telling re­mark about child rear­ing when he says: “You should con­sider that you may have a child who will be a wise and great man in Is­rael.” This is the Great Man the­ory of child rear­ing: our parental ex­pec­ta­tions are geared to great­ness.

The co­me­dian David Bader high­lights this in a short haiku en­ti­tled The Jewish Mother’s Lament: “Is one No­bel Prize so much to ask from a child after all I’ve done?”

This is why the fas­ci­nat­ing chas­sidic tra­di­tion about the “lamed­vu­vniks” is so im­por­tant. The lamed­vu­vnik is one of the 36 hid­den right­eous men upon whose shoul­ders the fate of the world rests. They ap­pear like or­di­nary men and live or­di­nary lives, yet they do ex­tra­or­di­nary things. In un­der­tak­ing one im­por­tant act of char­ity, these other­wise or­di­nary Joes save the world.

Para­dox­i­cally, the chas­sidic move­ment, which is ori­ented around the tzad­dik, the ul­ti­mate Great Man, pro­motes the sim­ple lamed­vu­vnik. But per­haps that’s the point. Even when ap­pre­ci­at­ing great he­roes, the con­tri­bu­tions of ev­ery­day he­roes should never be over­looked. The beauty of the lamed­vu­vnik tra­di­tion is that any­one might be great, and the gruff, griz­zled and wrin­kled wa­ter car­rier might be hold­ing the fate of the world on his shoul­ders.

This les­son is ex­tremely rel­e­vant in the 21st cen­tury. We live in an age that ob­sesses with great­ness. Jean Twenge writes in her book Gen­er­a­tion Me: “In the 1950s, 12 per cent of high school se­niors said they were a ‘very im­por­tant per­son.’ By the ’90s, 80 per cent said they be­lieved that they were.” Every­body ex­pects to be great and fa­mous, which makes it dif­fi­cult to be con­tent with liv­ing or­di­nary, but good lives.

Par­ents feel this strain in par­tic­u­lar when be­ing pulled be­tween ca­reer and fam­ily. Anne Marie Slaugh­ter wrote Un­fin­ished Busi­ness: Women Men Work Fam­ily to re­spond to au­thors who ar­gued that, with plan­ning, work­ing mothers can have it all. Slaugh­ter pas­sion­ately re­sponds that they can’t. Thank­fully, the les­son of the lamed­vu­vnik is you don’t need to have it all, and you don’t need to be great to be great.

The lamed­vu­vnik life is about chang­ing the world, one per­son at a time. Ge­orge El­liot ex­presses this idea beau­ti­fully when she writes in Mid­dle­march: A Study of Pro­vin­cial Life: “The grow­ing good of the world is… half ow­ing to the num­ber who lived faith­fully a hid­den life, and rest in un­vis­ited tombs.”

In the course of our lives, ev­ery one of us has met our own, per­sonal lamed­vu­vnik: a par­ent, teacher, friend or even stranger who has made an enor­mous dif­fer­ence in our lives. And they make that dif­fer­ence just by be­ing good, over and over again.

Some­times, you can be great just by be­ing good.

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